I’ve said this before, but I love Chuck Klosterman. I violently agree with about 2/3 of what he writes, and violently disagree with the other 1/3, but either way, he’s always thought-provoking and entertaining. Even when he writes about something trivial, like his second-by-second analysis of Edgar Winter Band’s Monster.
Anyway, he recently wrote about music and nostalgia and it made me think a lot. I’ve written many times about how music is inextricably tied up with nostalgia, that a lot of the music I love I love because it’s linked to a specific time in my life. But I’ve never thought about the nature of the link. Klosterman makes the claim that the link has nothing to do with quality; we don’t necessarily feel nostalgic for the “best” songs of a given time. Rather, it’s simply about repetition. The songs we happened to have listened to most during a time in our lives, that’s what makes us nostalgic for that time.
When I think about it, I think it’s true. There are certain songs that I do associate with specific events (have I written about this before? My family didn’t turn on the car radio on when we drove. There’s only a single time we did in my childhood – we had visited a family in the hospital whose child had died. When we left, none of us could talk, and the silence was so oppressive that we turned on the radio. George Michael’s Careless Whisper came on. The mood of that song was stunningly appropriate, and to this day, whenever I hear that saxophone riff, I can’t help but think of that car ride). And it’s not completely divorced from quality – we tend to listen more to good songs.
But there are definitely songs that make me feel nostalgic that have nothing to do with being good. Like, there’s a specific set of K-Pop songs (by Solid, DJ Doc, Noise) that instantly transport me to Korea in the summer of ’95. The songs mostly suck. They’re derivative (Solid), formulaic and repetitive (everything else). But Korea played the crap out of them that summer so whenever I hear it, I smile.
Same for certain songs from the summer of ’94. I worked in a lab in Houston, and all summer the lab had a radio set to Houston’s Mix 96.5, a station that believes in playing the same 20 songs over and over and over again. I nearly went mad. That’s why I know the words to Ace of Base’s The Sign intimately well. I learned how to play Richard Marx’s Now and Forever on guitar and Elton John’s Can You Feel The Love Tonight on piano note for note without ever sitting down at an instrument. Do I like those songs? Not particularly. Some of the songs from that summer (like John Mellencamp’s version of Wild Night with Meshell Ndegeocello) I despised. But they still make me feel nostalgic.
So yeah, maybe music and nostalgia are linked simply by repetition. Interesting idea.